I've also known since I became an adult that I'd need to find a way to give back what I have been given. It's the circle of life. A lot of people see my fame and wealth, but they don't realize that what created it all is a value system that operates on the principle of cause and effect: What you put out comes back. Do the emotional and spiritual work required to develop authentic power (using your personality to do your soul's work), and you will always be rewarded. What I know for sure: There is no greater calling than service to others. And there is no better way to have your blessings multiply.
Shortly after I arrived in Chicago, I started a mentorship program for teenage girls living in the Cabrini-Green housing projects. I was able to work with them only once a week, which wasn't enough time to instill values in girls whose upbringing wasn't aligned with my teachings. I had to end the program. Months later I came up with the misguided idea of moving families out of the projects and into new homes. Trying to show people how to build successful lives was overwhelming—I had taken for granted that they understood what it means to go to work, be on time, and make sure their children go to school and do their homework. So I failed with that idea, but I learned something invaluable: In order to make meaningful changes, you have to transform the way people think.
Going to Africa changed me forever. I was sitting in Nelson Mandela's living room when I told him I wanted to commit $10 million to build a school for girls who had no other chance to make it in the world. He was thrilled, and immediately called the minister of education to meet with me. Thus the dream began. Forty million dollars later, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls-South Africa stands primed to open on January 2. This is the best investment I have ever made, building a future for girls who more than deserve it.
My cup runneth over as I see in these girls' faces the light of my own. I know now why I never had children: These are the daughters I've been coming to my whole life. I am blessed to be able to feed, clothe, nurture, and inspire them, and provide teachers and counselors who will do the same. I know for sure that this school will change the trajectory of their lives. They will excel and pass their excellence on to their families, their nation, and our world.
The school's fundamental value is to encourage each girl to develop her critical thinking to create the best life possible for her, and then use her life in service to others, no matter her calling. I interviewed every one of the girls as part of the final admission process. When I asked one 11-year-old, "Why do you want to come to my school?" she responded, "It is my tomorrow!"
Indeed it is: hope, possibility, success, the future for generations to come. Through the whole process of choosing the bricks, every piece of tile in the bathrooms, the sheets, the uniforms, I knew I was giving something special to the girls. But what they've given me is a heart whose fullness has no measure.